The Chinese “Copycats” of Burning Man

The Temple is being burned at Burning Man 2019. (Source: ONE Art Museum)
  • Burning Man-style festivals or communities in Mainland China mainly include Dragon Burn, Gobi Heaven and Node Planet.
  • Dragon Burn is Mainland China’s only official regional Burn.
  • Although not officially affiliated with Burning Man, Gobi Heaven is also a festival in a desert with performances, art installations and Ten Principles.
  • Some say that “partial-commerciliaztion” might be a better way to localize Burning Man in Mainland China, as neither Dragon Burn and Gobi Heaven has come close to Burning Man’s scale in the U.S.

To describe Burning Man to someone who has never been there is like explaining what colors are like to the blind. This year, about 70,000 pilgrims, who call themselves “burners,” gathered in “Black Rock City,” a temporary city in the Nevada desert, to build hundreds of art installations, attend thousands of activities and participate in the symbolic ritual burning of the Man, a large wooden effigy. There is no commerce, except for paying for coffee and ice — If you want something, such as a beer or a ride, you can get it for free or sing a song in exchange. No signal exists to connect with the outside world, and thus all you have is the ones around you. After nine days, burners will dig through sands to clean any human trace, leaving the desert to its wilderness.

A group of Chinese artists envisioned a set of pagodas in the East, and built this vision in a desert in the U.S. to arrest demons at the Burning Man 2019.

“You can’t have the same experience anywhere else,” said Jin Xu, an artist who brought Tulpa Ashrams, a set of 12-meter high towers, with her team to add oriental colors in the pale desert. “Only when you were pushed toward the physiological limit, will you realize what kind of person you truly are.”

Burners gathered at Burning Man’s ritual burning. (Source: ONE Art Museum)

Bold and brave, Jin is not the pioneering Chinese artists who shipped their installations to Burning Man. Last year, artist Lu Ming and Gobi Heaven, an offline cultural events organizer led by Joshua Chen, built Desert Guard, a Mongolian warrior in armor. When sands blew and everything became obscure, burners could still see him standing in the desert like a guardian. He Da, a participant of last year, felt impressed seeing an installation full of Chinese characteristics in a desert thousands of miles away. “Only a Taiwanese team has achieved that before them. That was the first time that a Chinese mainland team has built an installation, which is quite surprising,” He said.

Desert God, created by artist Lu Ming and supported by Gobi Heaven, is guarding the Nevada desert at Burning Man 2018. (Source: He Da)

Coming back from Burning Man, Chen and his company Gobi Heaven started their own burning man event, branded as “the Chinese version of Burning Man,” in a desert in Inner Mongolia from Aug. 7 to Aug. 11 this year. Similarly, another company called Black Rock Sports Cultural Media Ltd. (Sounds familiar?) also held a desert carnival around the same time.

Although both of them are trying to clarify that they are not the official Chinese Burning Man branch, they adopt similar concept and organizational form. What is different is their commercialized operation, government intervention and understanding of Burning Man-style desert festival. With all the cultural differences between China and the U.S., is that the only way that Burning Man can localize in China?

Participants camped in a desert in Inner Mongolia to enjoy Gobi Heaven. (Source: Li Wei)

***

Gobi Heaven has long been questioned for its commercial orientation and advertising-driven approach, because the original Burning Man in the U.S. was backed by a non-profit Burning Man Project which aims to create a commerce-free community named Black Rock City.

″You need to bring ALL supplies, food, water and tools you will need for survival in a harsh environment. No food or sundry items are sold anywhere in Black Rock City.,” says the Burning Man website’s FAQ section. “If you forget something vital, your best bet is to make friends with your neighbors.”

Only two things are sold in the City — coffee and ice. It seems like the project is driving participants back to thousands of years ago when human beings can only exchange for goods. The fact that there is no signal in the desert also helps with that. All the burners can rely on is the goodness of their neighbors and themselves. “We feel like you can’t bring the atmosphere [of Burning Man] anywhere else. Only in that place, can we make it, by which I mean a group of naked people can be inspired to do all kinds of things under those primitive conditions,” He said, “Only in that place, can you experience various inspirations.”

He also joined Gobi Heaven’s event this year, but as an artist. “Although [Gobi Heaven] was born out of Burning Man, it is actually something of Chinese characteristics.” There is security, electricity and water all prepared for participants. Vendors brought outdoor goods to sell. There are also shows and performances scheduled by the organizer.

He Da and his artwork about life and death at Gobi Heaven. (Source: Li Wei)

***

What has shaped Gobi Heaven into the music festival plus arts commercial mode is the founders’ vision about the project. Chen has worked in creative advertising in Beijing for almost two decades. He met two other founders of public relations companies on Sep. 5, 2017, complaining about talents in those industries are undervalued by their clients. Chen knew of Burning Man, he and co-founder Liu Xuesong decided to “create a high-class platform where Chinese young people and those who have a taste and a pursuit can enjoy themselves.”

Chen flew to Boston two days later to try to and reach Burning Man headquarters and the management level. A special team was established in the first quarter of 2018 in San Francisco, where Burning Man’s headquarters locates, to initiate negotiations.

Meanwhile, a project named “Gobi Heaven” was launched on March 28, 2018. The project was sponsored by state-run China Media Cultural Group, which invested in the project in Oct. 2018, and the organizer was a secondary company by the Group and Beijing Gobi Heaven Cultural Innovation Media Ltd., started in June 2018 by CEO and founder Chen. The project organizers mainly have backgrounds in advertising, innovation, event planning.

“As the project organizers are mainly from these industries, people tend to feel like Gobi Heaven is too commercialized or there is too much marketing,” He said, “But personally I feel like it is truly not easy to start something like that, due to governmental policies regarding gathering a crowd and making a fire.”

The event organizers should apply for a security clearance 20 days in advance to the event, according to Regulations on Security Administration of Large-scale Mass Activities by the State Council. If the number of participants are over 5,000, it is the responsibility of the city-level public security organization, where the event is hosted, to issue such clearance.

Chen also claimed that Gobi Heaven’s project has gained unanimous acceptance and support from the Burning Man headquarters and even started a “Beijing Burner Club” as the officially recognized Burning Man club in Beijing.

***

However, before Chen claimed Gobi Heaven’s affiliation to Burning Man, similar events have been organized by Dragon Burn, which was initiated in Shanghai in 2011, and by Ian Rowan independently in Beijing since 2006.

Rowan later became an advisor of Dragon Burn, as Dragon Burn has grown to be officially recognized by Burning Man in 2014 and he has been the China regional contact of Burning Man for a while. Started by Shanghai-based expats, Dragon Burn is “Mainland China’s only official regional Burn,” according to its official website and Burning Man website.

Decommodification, LLC‘s trademark extension is awaiting examination. (Source: National Intellectual Property Administration, PRC)

“As the extension hasn’t been approved, it doesn’t constitute infringement of trademarks. However, we could claim unfair competition,” a person familiar with trademark law said. “One thing we need to look at is that if the related parties are misleading consumers to take them as Burning Man.”

Gobi Heaven uses its own IP registered at their investor China Media Cultural Group’s new IP platform. “Gobi Heaven is not Burning Man, and I hate that people think any kind of events in the desert as Burning Man… Is it true that as long as it’s parties, camping and exhibitions in the desert, they can only be called Burning Man?” Chen said, “I feel like that the reason most people yearn for Burning Man is not that they truly like Burning Man, but they worship ‘the U.S.’”

Last year, when Chen was asked the same question regarding if Gobi Heaven is China’s Burning Man, he said, “I extremely don’t like that people would say we are the Chinese version of Burning Man. But I said something like that because investors wanted me to describe in one sentence what Gobi Heaven is. I said that in consideration of the investor’s abilities to understand.”

Chen also clarified what Gobi Heaven wants to be, specifically to create with its own features and characteristics. “Maybe our next event will be on islands, in jungles or on the glacier,” Chen said.

As Gobi Heaven has just hosted one event, and that was in the desert. It’s difficult to predict if they will relocate in the future. But the idea of building a commerce-free community in the desert detached from modern society is almost the same as Burning Man. Gobi Heaven even has Ten Principles, which not surprisingly Burning Man has.

A comparison between the Ten Principles of Burning Man and Gobi Heaven. (Photo Source: ONE Art Museum)

The principles may look similar, but the intention behind them is different. Burning Man started on a beach in 1986 and moved to the desert in 1990. The principles came years later in 2014. “He (Burning Man’s founder) wrote these principles that you thought were describing Burning Man; not how Burning Man should be, but how burning man has become. it was not meant to be prescriptive,” Rowan said. However, ten principles of Gobi Heaven were everywhere in their branding and marketing slogans, more as a way to attract people interested in a new form of entertainment. “Why can’t we introduce the Burning Man-style event,” Gobi Heaven’s WeChat post read. “So Gobi Heaven’s approach to the principles is very very different. Their whole event essentially reverses the order of Burning Man’s cultural evolution,” said Rowan.

***

When Gobi Heaven is trying to recruit more burners, Dragon Burn is keeping a low profile. As “a Shanghai-based community focusing on interactive art, music, fire and pop-up participatory imagination,” a bunch of volunteers hosted an annual Burning Man-style event in the first five days of May with hundreds of people.

“Any kind of mass gathering in China is gonna face questions about its liability. There’s a lot of regulations to consider; there’s local sensitivities. Dragon Burn creates a very safe container for its participants. And so for this reason, it made sense to try and keep it as low key as possible, to not promote it with any kind of media to keep it to out of view of of people who aren’t connected via friends and friends of friends,” Rowan said.

Taking Rowan’s place, Elaine Kang now serves as the regional contact for Dragon Burn, while working in hospitality at a five-star hotel in Shanghai. She joined the community in around 2012, two years before the organization was officially recognized by Burning Man. At that time, it was a small circle of four to five people.

“As you can see in recent years, there are some activities trying to use Burning Man for reference. What they are calling upon is that they want to create a Chinese version of Burning Man. But for me, I don’t want a Chinese one, which is against the radical inclusion principle of Burning Man,” Kang said, “Burning Man is a global community, and our event happened to be in China. I don’t want to add too many tags, saying that this is Chinese.”

Dragon Burn gathered around 800 burners in Zhejiang province this year to celebrate the local event. (Source: Dragon Burn)

***

How can Burning Man be localized in China while keeping its authenticity? There hasn’t been a satisfactory answer. The official branch Dragon Burn adheres to the principles of Burning Man, but they are having trouble starting a formal organization and expanding the community (if they want to) due to government regulations and funding. While Gobi Heaven is not really restricted by those two, they are drifting away from the original Burning Man. “I would rather comment on Gobi Heaven’s events with encouragement, hoping they can do a better job, because it is not that easy to put up art-related events right now in China,” said Kang, “As for the dishonest behaviors, I’ve shared my concerns and he expressed understanding.”

Apart from going though government regulations and raising funding, Burning Man-style festivals in China retains a threshold of understanding, as they are still a cultural niche to a small group of people. “There has been no history of large-scale art festivals in rural areas in China,” said Jade Zhou, the executive producer of Tulpa Ashrams, who has worked in the offline cultural events industry for years. “If they [Gobi Heaven] can continue doing this for five years, that would be awesome, no matter it’s commercial operation or not.”

For Gobi Heaven, although they claimed there were over 50,000 participants this year, the number might be misleading. Li Wei, who participated this year, said the organizer lowered the price to 80 yuan ($11) per day from 2,800 yuan for five days and nights ($401) to attract local farmers, because they didn’t have enough participants. “I feel like as a music festival that promotes freedom like the Burning Man, [Gobi Heaven] may not be as accepted by the local community because of the high price,” Li said.

Having participated both Gobi Heaven and Burning Man this year, Elena Wang felt like the biggest difference is autonomy. “Chinese people are more likely to have fun there as a participant, rather than a creator,” Wang said. For Wang and other burners, Burning Man is more than like a spiritual wonderland where they can ponder philosophical questions about life and the future.

“I feel like domestic events should go for partial-commercialization, instead of NGO. Although they may lead to the same destination, the approaches might be different. It is hard if you want to land such an event in China, especially when it comes to burning stuff. Without government involvement, I feel like it’s impossible,” Wang said.